Monday, November 30, 2009

Bosnian Thanksgiving

Riding through the Bosnian countryside, listening to classic American Christmas music that blares through the bus' intercom system, gazing out the distorted, raindrop-streaked windows at the passing scenery, buildings riddled with bullet holes pass by, speaking out about the wars this country has been through. 

And just at this moment, as I sat and soaked it all in, I had a really sweet moment. It was one of those moments where it just hits you, that life is really, really cool. That you're experiencing something very special, a once-in-a-lifetime even. And you just want to savor it, to take it all in, to recognize the value of the moment. I realized how amazingly blessed I am. 

And so, even though Thanksgiving dinner took place in frigid hotel mess hall, thousands of miles from family, and consisted of fried veal, French fries and some kind of soup, it was easy to be grateful for the experience. I mean how many people will ever get the chance to spend an American holiday in Bosnia? How many people could even point out Bosnia on a map? 

In Bosnia we stayed in Medjugorje, a town considered by many to be highly spiritual. For those of you who don't know (probably all of you who weren't there), here's the story: 

In 1981 some kids were playing up on the mountain above the town of Medjugorje when they suddenly saw the Blessed Virgin Mary appear to them. This is a very faithfully Catholic town, so the kids knew who she was. This apparition was a big deal! The children told the townspeople about it, but most didn't believe them. The next day many followed the kids back up the mountain where Mary again appeared. Only the original kids (there were six) could see her, but others from the village also had experiences that led them to believe the authenticity of the apparition. Even now, 28 years later, some of the original kids are still visited consistently by Mary. 

Whether or not you believe the story is true, the town sure does. Everywhere you go there's little gift shops selling rosaries, crucifixes and Marys of every possible size and color. Millions of people make the pilgrimage to Medjugorje, wishing to see for themselves the site where Mary appeared. I climbed the mountain and saw this place where now there's a statue of Mary. It's a beautiful area, surrounded by low mountains and green valleys. A very good place for an apparition in my opinion. 

Other cool/interesting things about Bosnia. 
It's got variety. There are large Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox populations there. This has led to some major problems, including political disputes and fighting, but also creates a unique blend of cultures. 
Before Bosnia was independent of Yugoslavia it was home to the 1984 Olympic games in its current capitol city Sarajevo. 
Bosnia is really cheap (compared to Florence)! They use Bosnian Marks, and its pretty easy to get a great hamburger for like 6 marks, which is 3ish Euros or 4 and half bucks. A good burger in Italy could easily cost you 12 Euros, or 18 dollars. 

It's definitely weird not being home for Thanksgiving. I missed the giant, home cooked turkey, the piles of mashed potatoes, the stuffing, gravy, even the weird purple cranberry stuff. I missed hearing Grandpa talk about working on the farm back in the good ol’ days. I miss watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade before dinner and falling asleep to the Cowboys football game afterwards.

But, like I said, I’m soaking it all in, and fried veal actually goes very well with fries, and I wouldn’t have traded my Bosnia experience for anything. Not even for a traditional Thanksgiving in Illinois. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The lovely, quirky, slightly dangerous yet thoroughly enchanting Italia

This last month and a half has been my “Getting to know you Italia” time. I haven’t left Italy at all yet, but have been all over it—it’s a very cool place. I’m starting to become more adjusted to my new life here. I’m settling in, not to what I’d call a routine, but I’m getting this living in Europe thing down pretty well.

A few Italian things I’ve been noticing and getting used to:
Vespas: these little motorbike terrors erratically cruise the streets of Italy like wild, out-of-control horses. They generally ignore all traffic signs, lanes and sometimes pedestrians. The trick to dealing with them? You just have to learn to dodge. When you see an opportunity to cross the street, RUN. And don’t hesitate or you might be toast.

Smokers: Italians like to smoke. And I mean REALLY like to smoke. Even the kids here smoke. Everywhere you go you’ll see smokers, smell smokers and breathe the second hand fumes. Trying to avoid it is like trying to swim while keeping your feet out of the water—it makes it really hard to breathe! Once, while eating at a restaurant in Rome, the waiter came out to our table with menus in one hand and a smoking cigar in the other. Very classy. All this smoking nonsense took a while to get used to, but I’m at the point where I just accept it as a fact. Italians smoke.

Stuff here is Old: Get over it. I know back home the oldest street on the block was built in the ‘40s, but that doesn’t mean you need to stop at every 500-year-old building to take pictures. That’ll get old real fast (pun intended).

The Trains: First of all, I’d like to point out that this is my favorite way to travel. Trains are smooth, relaxing, relatively fast, and offer the best views of passing scenery; still, there are a few things to keep in mind. Remember to validate your ticket! This means getting it stamped in the little yellow boxes BEFORE you get on the train. If you forget you can simply accept the fine from the guy doing the rounds, or you can risk dashing off the train at the next stop to get your ticket stamped before the train starts moving again. I’ve already opted for the latter once.
The other thing about trains that caught me by surprise is the toilets. There was nothing unusual about it at first, but once I flushed I looked down and realized I could see the tracks rushing by through the bottom of the toilet. They just open up onto the tracks! It’s a bizarre and slightly disturbing custom. If you ever find yourself walking along the tracks in Europe and you notice a funny smell, you’ll know what it is.

The Internet: It’s like back in my homeschooled days when we lived off of dialup internet—so slow! If anyone in the building has decided to make a Skype call, watch a Youtube video, or upload some photos to Facebook, the remaining bandwidth stream dwindles immediately to a trickle and pages begin loading at glacial speed. You can also be cut off from the connection at any time, for seemingly no reason other than the whim of the router. It’s a frustrating process; remember that in mind next time you get a Wall post from me :]

But seriously, Italy is a cool place despite its occasionally annoying idiosyncrasies. Here are a couple of the places I've been:

Cinque Terre ("The Five Villages") is a pretty cute area on the coast where the cliffs meet the sea. Each village is tiny, some with just a couple hundred people, but they offer a totally chill, restful atmosphere with great beaches and pretty amazing hikes.

Pisa is a cool place, and the Tower really does lean a lot. There's a lot of tourists here, and they're ALL in search of that perfectly angled picture that shows them holding up the tower...

Great place to go to get yourself a real cheap Rolex.

The ruins of Pompeii: definitely worth spending a few hours there. This was the ancient city that had the misfortune of being next to the Vesuvius (a very large, very active volcano) at the time of its eruption in 79 a.d.
It was totally buried and eerily preserved for the last couple thousand years until its fairly recent uncovering.

Well, I don't know how regularly this blogger thing is going to be working out--I'm a busy man over here, but I'm doing my best to keep in touch with all y'all. Check back every once in a while and maybe I'll have something else up.

By the way, next weekend I'm heading off to Barcelona, Spain! Let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Old posts but hey I'm catching up with technology

September 7

It’s pretty amazing that you can hop on an airplane in Seattle at 7 O’clock Saturday night, be in Rome just 14 hours later and not even be hungry. And while airline meals aren’t exactly fine dining, at 30 thousand feet these tasted pretty good.

I signed up for this trip hearing constant praise from past participants. The general consensus is that Gonzaga-in-Florence will be the adventure of a lifetime. The most fun, exciting year a college junior could ask for. Me, I have a variety of reasons for going. I’m definitely looking for some excitement, adventure, and fresh new experiences. But another part of it was just wanting to break away from tradition. There’s something about stagnant familiarity, the rut of an overly repetitious schedule that really gets to me. I love Gonzaga and am definitely happy being there with friends and siblings. But I’ve been there two years now, and that seems like long enough start looking for a change of scenery.

So here I am, at the Rome International Airport, waiting for the arrival of a complete stranger with whom I am splitting a motel room. Tomorrow 150 bright, adventurous students will converge here and officially start the program. For now I wait and ponder what my plan is for recognizing this guy when he gets here. Maybe I should have worn my Gonzaga hoodie—truly a universally understood beacon guaranteed to attract other students together. Ah, the glitches of unprepared spontaneity. Pretty Surferist I’d say, even if it means I spend the night on a row of ratty airport chairs dragged together.
I’ll send this when I find some internet over here. Um… could be a while.

September 10

Italy is a country rich with history. As we walked down the streets of Palmero, Sicily our guide chatted nonstop about the power-struggles, the epic battles and all the Henrys and Williams who’ve been king here.  We walked in and out of thousand-year-old churches adorned with solid gold mosaics, saw marble statues and fountains representing entire lifetimes of artistic endeavor, and traversed down the passages of dark, Sicilian catacombs lined with skeletons of ancient citizens. Nothing I’ve seen in the U.S. comes close to these in terms of history and sheer grandeur. The sights here transcend the barriers of time, giving visitors a first-hand glimpse into past centuries.

The food here has been excellent as well. And it can actually be pretty cheap, you just have to know where to look. A sketchy looking, narrow alley can be the perfect place for a little hole-in-the wall restaurant serving amazing pastas. They also have lots of fish here, but I have yet to taste any that compare to a fresh, Washington salmon. The cool thing about eating out here is that tips aren’t expected. On the other hand we always have to pay for water, so it probably balances out.

Meals are definitely taken at a different pace than what’s typical in the States. It’s all about the enjoyment of sitting around a table enjoying the moment with friends and food. Multicourse meals come one dish at a time, and can stretch on for a long time. Even getting a simple meal at an outdoor cafĂ© is not something to be rushed. Waiters never seem to bring out the bill, even when it’s clear that the table is finished, until everyone has had plenty of time to sit back and let the food settle down. I think restaurants enjoy seeing their tables full of bloated, content customers, even if they’re no longer eating.

So far the experience has been great! Travelling with such a big group (158 kids plus staff) is stressful and inconvenient, but I think it’s a good way to start out. It’s pretty hard to get separated and lost from a group like this. Tomorrow we go to another hotel that apparently has a private beach on the Mediterranean. Totally sweet, even though there’s no surfing.